As we've adjusted to the new norms of the public health crisis created by the coronavirus, we've had to adapt our lives — mostly by moving them inside. We're teaching our kids at the kitchen table, working from our living rooms and spending far too much time during our "off hours" on our phones or in front of our televisions. And while states continue to grapple with the complexities of safely reopening, we know we will be faced with this "new normal" for quite some time.
But social distancing actually offers Americans an ideal moment to get closer ... to nature. Many of us with the ability and means to do so have turned to the outdoors — whether by walking our dogs a little more or finding a new trail far less traveled — as an escape from a crowded home or a chance to put some emotional distance between us and the problems of the peopled world.
For nature, the last few weeks have been a chance to really show its stuff. With so much less human disruption, nature has rarely been more natural in our lifetimes. A reduction in pollution, planes and people provides us with a rare opportunity to experience a more serene environment.
Plus, there's something truly comforting in the midst of this pandemic about the fact that nature continues to go about its business. In my home state, Maine, the ice is out of the lakes, flowers are starting to bloom and the sun is hanging in the sky a little longer every evening. It really helps put the other problems of the world into perspective.
The power of nature to make us feel better is an amazing phenomenon. My great-grandfather Leon Leonwood Bean believed that the great outdoors has much to teach us, both about ourselves and about the world around us. L.L. insisted that time outside — whether in the presence of a snowcapped mountain, a rushing river or a starry sky — allowed us to "forget the mean and petty things in life." (Those words ring perhaps even truer today.)
And even though it wasn't scientifically documented at the time, my great-grandfather knew intuitively that humans are at our best when we're outside.
Science has finally caught up with his instinct. Time outside affects us positively, physically, mentally and emotionally. Research being done at the University of California, Berkeley and Arizona State University found that time outdoors is restorative. It provides a much-needed break from current events, lowers our stress levels and strengthens family bonds. It even has the power to connect us to something bigger than ourselves.
So let's seize this time to experience yet more of the outdoors — safely.
As trails and access to public lands like beaches, lakes and rivers slowly reopen across the country, we must begin to redefine what stewardship of those resources means. We have long talked about, when enjoying nature, the need to leave it as we found it — not leaving refuse behind, not interfering with wild animals or their habitats, not polluting waterways and the like — but we must act even more differently than we might have before.
Avoiding crowds, covering our noses and mouths and continuing to stay 6 feet (or more) away from others will have to become a priority, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The greater our adherence to guidelines that protect other humans in nature, the greater the likelihood we can all keep enjoying the bounty of our country's natural beauty.
Nature can also nudge us to nurture interpersonal bonds, because it affords us a place to share amazing, authentic adventures. Our children can immerse themselves in life beyond the virtual, viral world. Friends can connect — at a safe distance — and conquer new challenges together. Amid the wildlife, away from the well-worn paths, we can start to see how to find our way forward.
And, yes, while summer travel is likely to look a lot different for people this year, it doesn't have to lack for adventure. In place of theme parks, consider national parks. Instead of flying, consider biking. Rather than sending the kids off to camp, go camping.
But it's also important to remember that, while there is great benefit from taking in the wonders of our state and national parks, restoration doesn't come only from grand trips and adventures. Our bodies and minds can benefit from micro-moments in nature, too.
We should all try to find regular renewal in the simple things, whether watching the sun set or the moon rise from the front steps, listening for the birds from your backyard or balcony in the quiet of the morning or spending a few extra minutes when you take your dog out at night to gaze up at the sky. If you can, go for a long walk; it doesn't take but a little imagination to turn any neighborhood into a trail. Breathe in deeper; feel the sun on your face (or even a few sprinkles of rain).
This is undoubtedly a tough time for everyone, so there has never been a more important time to get outside. Nature can help us heal — but not if we stay inside.